I’ve been noticing something on twitter and in the public debate surrounding the Afghan Taliban over the past few days. An interview of Motassim in the Guardian last week was shared widely online, and people particularly seemed to find his comments about Mullah Mohammad Omar’s loss of control of the Taliban interesting. To those following the Taliban closely this isn’t news. It’s been the case for two or three years at least.
What is interesting is that it has taken that long for that kind of analysis and comment to become accepted by mainstream commentators and to become part of the public debate on the Afghan Taliban.
My very unscientific guess is that there’s usually a lag of 6-18 months from a trend starting to emerge within the Taliban to the point where those outside the movement start to notice it. And from there there’s another 1-2 years before a particular feature or analytical point becomes accepted and part of public discourse.
Needless to say, this incredibly slow dispersal of understanding makes it hard for analysis and action to mesh together usefully.
An excellent overview of the history of the Somali al-Shabab group, one with many lessons or reminders of Afghanistan (at least for this reader).
This is a short book, based on some reports written for FFI and others, and in that it has the virtue of concision. Hansen covers al-Shabab’s history starting with early proto-Islamist movements and groups started several decades ago. It was the best explanation of where the networks that make up al-Shabab come from that I’ve read, although it may just be that I haven’t been following this too closely since the last time I was last in Mogadishu a couple of years ago.
It was packed with stories and trends that reminded me of Afghanistan, both in the way the international actors chose to respond and intervene, and also in the development of al-Shabab itself. For this reason I’d strongly recommend this book to those working in and on Afghanistan. You’ll find a rich vein of material that you can bring back to enrich your understanding of the Taliban and/or the past decade or three. (Needless to say, I’m the last person to suggest that everything is the same in every country, and that there aren’t hundreds of reasons why comparisons aren’t useful in a this-happened-in-somalia-so-it-must-be-the-same-in-afghanistan.)
There are lots of names and places mentioned, and if you’re not familiar with at least the bare outlines of the plot so far as well as some of the key players, you might find it confusing. I wish there was some sort of reference in the back to allow you to keep track of all the different people mentioned.
As always, I wasn’t really sure I got a sense of the leaders of al-Shabab (or their fighters) as people in this book, but maybe that’s one step too far and one in which it’s harder to offer anything that isn’t highly subjective or just unrepresentative. Perhaps we can look forward to a book of al-Shabab’s songs and poems from Hurst in the future?
Overall, though, an impressive collation of information. Hansen has done us all a service in spending time in Somalia doing fieldwork and in taking the time to put this book together.
Buy it here.
We’re looking for some high-quality translators to work full-time on a project translating old newspapers and magazines from Pashto (and a small amount of Dari) into English.
The work would be 5 days per week, but you will be free to work from home. I.e. there will almost certainly not be any office for you to work from.
The project will take place over the course of a year, with a possible extension to a second year. We would initially hire you for a trial period before committing to hire you for the full year.
If you’re interested, please head on over to the form here and fill it out. We’ll get back to you in due course, if and when we’re ready to start the hiring process.
UPDATE (JULY): We’ve stopped taking applications and are working on finalising the hiring process. Thanks for all your interest!
Previous posts have been about languages and how to learn them. Not all languages are for communication with other people, though. It is a truism that more and more of our lives are lived through various technologies — be it computers, ‘smart’ phones or other appliances — but we often aren’t too good at understanding how those things work.
I’ve been trying to remedy this by getting a better understanding of the back end through programming languages. Not only has it been an interesting intellectual exercise, but I have found practical applications for the skills I have learnt. Recently, for example, I wrote a piece of code that crawled through webpages, saving only the parts of text that I needed to a separate database.
There is a huge variety of things that you can try out here, so I’ll just offer some suggestions for things that I’ve found useful along the way. Most of this is aimed at complete beginners. I’ll assume that’s where you are as well.
Python is considered by many (if not most) to be the best place to start as a novice programmer. It teaches lots of transferrable skills that can be applied to other languages that you might want to pick up.
My top recommendation would be to enrol in Udacity’s CS101 course. Udacity is a relative newcomer to the scene, but I’ve found the parts of this course that I’ve done (I’m still working my way through) to be excellent. It has LOTS of practice, frequent testing of your ability to solve problems along the way, and is not dull to watch at all (as some of these courses are). What’s more, by the end of the course you will have built your own search engine using the skills you’ve learnt. It’s free, so you have no excuse. Go sign up.
In case you’re interested in learning Ruby, you can try the following, many of which are designed for young children to be able to use and follow along, so, again, no excuses…
Now go try some of those out…
Saba Imtiaz, a freelance journalist based in Karachi, has started a daily newsletter of updates relating to Pakistan’s upcoming elections — scheduled to take place this summer. She explains what she’ll be offering in a recent blogpost:
Along with a round-up of the headlines and commentary from English, Urdu and Sindhi news sources, I’ll also be writing smaller profiles of candidates and major news issues, as well as doing smaller data dumps on voting patterns
I have been working on the ISAF press releases data again. Just as a little teaser, here’s a chart comparing the first fifteen days of January in 2011, 2012 and 2013. It shows the number of ISAF operations in which someone was captured or killed (as reported in their press releases).
The second chart compares the numbers of operations carried out over the course of the first fifteen days of the month, as well as the numbers of people who were killed or detained during the course of those operations.
The third chart compares the numbers of leaders and facilitators who were removed from the fight in some way (either killed or detained).
Note that all the data for the above charts comes from ISAF’s press release reporting. ISAF under-report incidents, so there will have been more operations and deaths and detentions etc than are mentioned here.
[My last post on the study of languages seems to have been well-received so I thought I'd add a few thoughts on the study of vocabulary. For some reason it's another stumbling block for many people who lack a system to be able to manage their vocabulary learning. I hope that by the time you finish reading this post you'll have some approaches and tools to think about, at the very least.]
There are three things you need to know about and do when it comes down to learning vocabulary, possibly four.
1. Word Association
This is pretty basic stuff as far as vocab learning goes, but if you don’t know it it can be something of a revelation. See this (and click through the following links) for a basic outline.
The basic task here is to associate the meaning along with the sound of the word.
The trick with word association is to make the images in your head as crazy as possible. You need to make it stick in your mind, so the more outrageous the image, the more it’s going to stick. You might think it takes too long to imagine these scenes/images (that I’ll describe) but it’ll pay off in the long-run.
So, what you have to do is take a word and mentally associate it with its meaning. Take the Arabic word mumill (meaning ‘boring’). Close your eyes if you need to. When I see that word, I think of two things — MOO (the sound that the cow makes) and then a flour MILL. And somehow I have to try to associate those two things with the concept of ‘boring’. So I imagine a flour mill, an old slightly dusty stone flour mill. You can hear the slow grinding of the mill on the flour, grinding it down to a fine powder. You can smell a bit of the flour in the air; perhaps the particles in the air are brushing against your face, getting in your hair. You can see the dark stone. When you touch the mill itself, it’s a bit warm to the touch from all the grinding it’s been doing. When you turn and look to see who’s driving/pushing the millstone, to your surprise you see that it’s a cow, who makes a gratifyingly loud ‘MOO’ sound when she sees you. When the cow walks past, you can smell the ‘cow smell’ and she’s warm to the touch as well (having worked so hard). You see that she’s extremely bored doing her milling, and you see that in one paw/hand/foot she has a sudoku game (or whatever) that she’s doing while she pushes the millstone around and around to stop herself from being too bored.
Anyway, that’s more or less what you have to do for every word. Split it up into sounds and then do this word association. The important things are to:
a) use all the senses (sight, smell, touch, taste, hearing) in your association, because that’s what will make it really stick in your mind and
b) make the images/scenes you create as wild as possible.
Learning professionals usually suggest to play on the deeper patterns, including things that are embarrassing etc etc, so try to bring all of that into your visualisation. Also, personalise the images. It needs to resonate FOR YOU. Use objects that evoke very specific and strong emotions: love, sex, war, your late relative, object of your infatuation, whatever it is; it is well known that emotional states and the full sensory palette can facilitate recall.
The point with all of this isn’t that you are going to remember all of this image when you hear the word ‘mumill’. Your brain will move much faster than that, and you’ll just get a glimpse at the image and that’ll be enough to jog your memory to provide the translation ‘boring’. After a while (I’ll explain below), you won’t need the image any more, but it’ll be there if you need it.
For Arabic, one of the issues is often that you have a long list of verbs, all with 3 letters with the same vowelling — darasa, faqada, hamala etc etc — and that can sometimes make it difficult to distinguish the words. But, like I said, split them up into two parts if you can, or find some way to make them stand out or associate them with something you already know.
2. Iversen’s Lists
You should have gone through your list of words that you have to memorise and do this for every single word. I will assume that you will have a bit of learning to do each week or each day, incrementally, rather than getting all your words at once to learn for the entire year all in one go.
So do the association technique first. Then take a blank piece of paper — A4 is good (or whatever the US equivalent is) — and write a list of the words you have to learn today on the left side of the page. Try not to take up too much space. Maybe it’s 20 words. Write them down on the left side of the page.
Then take a ruler or draw a line alongside that list and to the right of the line, (perhaps in a different colour pen), write the translation of that word. Do that for all the words. If you don’t know the word, then the memorisation image/association hasn’t stuck, so you can look up the correct answer and make sure that your association sticks this time.
Once you’ve completed this first test, take another piece of paper (or, better still, something thicker like a book so you can’t cheat) and cover up the first column. Now you only have your answers to look at, and you should draw another line and then write the translations. (i.e. translating things back into the original language). Do all the translations for the list, then check whether you got them right.
Then you should repeat this until the entire piece of paper (both sides) are covered with translations back and forth. If you write small-ish, you should be able to get a good 6 or 7 rounds of translations/testing in (if not more).
Perhaps don’t do all of these sessions at once. Do one side of the page in one go, and then leave other sessions for later in the day (for reasons I’ll explain now).
3. Spaced Repetition & Anki
The really Jedi vocabulary learning trick requires that you know a bit about how the mind works and how quickly we forget. Take a look at this graph. This basically shows how the memory forgets.
So, following the red line, when you first learn a word (or a piece of information, or anything) if you try to remember it within an hour or so, the memory is pretty good. If you try to recall that fact 6 days later (without any study in between), you’ll see (by following the red line to day 6) that the memory for such facts can swiftly decline pretty quickly.
There is a way to avoid this, though, which is something called spaced repetition. Because this half-life or rate of decline of memory is predictable (i.e. everyone has this curve, and how quickly it takes you to forget stuff is more or less stable/calculable), if you remind yourself of the word or fact within certain times, then you will be able to ‘reset’ the forgetting curve. The great thing about this ‘reset’ process, is that each time you do it, it takes longer to forget.
For example, let’s say you learned the word for mumill just now. You’d ideally want to recall that word 30 minutes after you learned it. Then an hour later, then 3 hours later, then 6 hours later, then 12 hours later, then 24 hours later, then 3 days later, then 1 week later, then 3 weeks later, then 5 weeks, then 2.5 months etc etc).
So if you keep catching the words at the point just before you forget them, you can steadily put the fact/word deeper into your long-term memory.
But, you may ask, how do you remember when the last time you tested yourself on a particular word? How do you ensure that you catch this ‘forgetting curve’ and know how far along you are with memorisation…
Luckily, a bunch of people have already taken care of this and thought it through, and there’s a piece of software which will save your life. I wish I’d had it when I was learning languages at university.
It’s called Anki, and you can download it here. They’ve just released version 2.0. It’s free. There are other imitations, but Anki is really the gold standard here. Don’t bother looking around. Anki is the real deal.
So with this programme you create a ‘collection’ of words. You have to input your vocabulary (just one side — i.e. just Arabic-English or English-Arabic) into the programme. Once one person has done it, then you can share the decks of flashcards (either online or as offline files), so you can immediately become the most popular person on your course if you do a full collection for your course, I would guess. (For more obscure languages, and I include Pashto in this pantheon, there are some true heros who assemble vocabulary lists and upload them to sharing sites for others to use).
Anyway, once you’ve inputted the cards, it will test you on the words in both directions (i.e. Eng-Ar as well as Ar-Eng) automatically.
Then you just start learning. You can state how many new words you want to learn each day. I’d recommend no more than 20. And, IMPORTANT POINT, you should do steps 1 and 2 (as I explained above) BEFORE you do a round with Anki. i.e. first do the word association stuff, then do a day learning the words with the lists and the blank piece of paper and the columns, and then the next day you should learn those words in Anki. It’ll auto-test you the words and you pick an option whether the word was easy to remember, hard, very hard, or whether you didn’t remember it at all.
Depending on which option you pick for each word (when you see the answer), it’ll then remember which forgetting curve to assign to the word, and it’ll remind you that you need to review that piece of vocabulary/fact at the appropriate time.
So let’s say in 1 month from now, the word mumill shows up on the screen, and you eventually remember it, but it took a bit of time. You press ‘very hard to remember’ and it’ll remind you of that word in 18 days (approx) since it recognises that you need a bit more time before it really ends up in your longer-term memory.
Then once you’ve started with Anki, you just have to make sure to return to Anki once a day and study the words that show up for review. Luckily there is a mobile version of Anki available (for iPhone/iPad as well as Android). I’ll assume you have a phone which is either an iphone or an android. The mobile versions you have to pay for. But it’s completely worth it.
This means that whenever you’re stuck in a bus, or waiting in a queue or something, you just need to pull out your phone and you can review a few words on Anki. It has all the same features as the desktop version (apart from the ability to add words, I think). It’s also a good idea to include audio along with each vocab entry which will be another sensory association and input that will help imprint the word in your mind.
The trick here, and it’s really important, is to do it every day. If you only do it once a week, then you’ll forget words more often (as the forgetting curve means you’ll have missed the chance to reactivate or ‘reset’ the curve on words during the week). I really strongly recommend you do your Anki words once a day. Some days there won’t be any words, or very few (depending on how many your course has you learning).
4. (Writing/Reading for Extra Imprinting)
If you really want to get to a high level in your vocab learning, then use it to support your more general skills. i.e. you should use the vocab words in context.
When I use Anki, I sometimes like to take each word (when it comes up on the screen for testing/study) and before I give my answer, I first make myself use that word in a sentence. This allows me to practice grammar structures, and also creates new associations for that word with other pieces of material. (For the memory, more associations are better, since things are recalled via these webs/networks of signals in the mind). Even better, write these sentences down (although by now we’re talking study/exercises that take a bit of time, rather than just Anki etc, which would take maximum 20 minutes per day).
The ideal place for practicing your writing is lang-8.com, where you can get a free account. The principle here is that everyone corrects everyone else. i.e. when you put up a few sentences of writing practice, native Arabic speakers (or whatever language) will correct your sentences, but ideally you should correct their English sentences etc to return the favour. It’s all free, and done on an honour system, so you get as much as you give etc.
I use it for my Urdu, Arabic and Pashto studies, and you’ll usually get a correction for things you post there within 12-24 hours, which is pretty amazing when you think about it.
Another really good way to reinforce your vocabulary is to read a lot. Most of the studies of language study and learning (see last week’s post) now agree that ‘intensive reading practice’ is the best way to build up your vocabulary. Obviously, you need to start with texts that are somewhat comprehensible and then slowly build up, and it can be really difficult. Sometimes you think that you’re just reading gobbledegook. But slowly, if you stick at it, weeks later, you’ll be able to read more and more, and you’ll be learning words without the need to memorise and go through all the systems above (although if the word’s giving you problems, or if you’d really like to remember it, then by all means add it to Anki etc) because you’ll be using and seeing that word in the context of the sentence / words around it etc.
Anyway, none of this is a substitute for the somewhat-hard work that goes into learning vocabulary, but it certainly can shortcut things. Particularly if you start inputting your vocabulary into Anki early on in the course of your language studies, and reviewing it every day throughout the year, by the end of a year you’ll be in a really good place compared to others.
I often get emails and requests on twitter about language study methods and tips. I’m no great expert on this, but I have read and experimented a good deal with various techniques while learning languages. I’m often surprised that many people don’t know the sheer variety of resources that are available to them, or just the basics of how to go about studying a new language.
I’ll be returning to some of these points in a bit more detail in the coming weeks, but these are some thoughts to start off the discussion.
1. Learning a language is the easiest way to put yourself ahead of the competition
This applies for everything from research to journalism to people simply planning a holiday. For various reasons, it’s pretty unusual for people living in English-speaking countries to study a second foreign language to anything approaching fluency. Part of this is the social expectation and a feeling that it isn’t necessary, and part is a pedagogical deficit in schools and universities that gives people the impression that studying languages is boring.
In reality, studying Arabic, Farsi and Pashto was the single best thing I did in terms of advancing my ability to understand the people and places where I have been working over the past few years. The fact that hardly anyone else bothers means that you are automatically in a better position than they are and more able to be able to engage with the country where you’re living working. There’s the added bonus that you save money that you would have to spend on translators and fixers otherwise.
(Note that this applies less to non-English-speaking European countries, especially France, where you aren’t taken seriously as an area studies ‘expert’ if you don’t speak the language of the country you’re studying. It’s actually a good way of assessing someone’s committment to studying a particular area: if they’ve put the hours in and can speak the local language, you know they’re serious.)
2. Studying languages needn’t be expensive
We’re living in a golden age of language learning. There are free online resources for more or less all the major languages, so much so that you almost have no excuse for moving forward with that dream you once had of being able to speak a foreign language.
If you want to learn Spanish, French, German, Italian or Portuguese, start with duolingo.com. If you’re thinking about learning Mandarin Chinese, visit HackingChinese which also happens to be an excellent place to read about study methods. If you’re thinking about studying Arabic — about which more below — you could do worse than starting here and getting to grips with the alphabet. If you want to study Russian, check out RussianForFree. I could keep going. There are vocabulary study tools available at Anki, Memrise and Keewords. For practicing your writing, set up an account at Lang-8 and have your work corrected by native speakers. Need some practice of your spoken skills? Log on to Verbling.
EVERYTHING IN THE PREVIOUS PARAGRAPH IS FREE. There are other resources which you can supplement these free courses with if you get serious about your studies, but you can go a LONG way with free materials available online.
3. Learning some basic techniques and reading about language study methodology at the outset helps a lot
I’m guessing you haven’t spent much time reading about the science of learning, or the science of learning languages. If you’re going to teach yourself a language — and I’m mainly talking about self-study here, not learning as part of a class — it really helps to have some idea of the basic dos and don’ts.
A few suggestions for things to read. All of these are available as ebooks on the kindle store, so no excuses…
Daniel Coyle’s The Little Book of Talent: This short book has 52 practical suggestions for how to learn skills, how to practice, how to make the most of your time. I refer to this book a couple of times a week for suggestions on how to improve my skills. Highly recommended.
Gary Marcus’s Guitar Zero: Again, another short book about the science of learning. It’s a story of the author’s attempts to learn the guitar after turning forty, but really it’s a book about different ways to approach learning. A good complement to The Little Book of Talent.
Michael Erard’s Babel No More: You could do much worse than reading through this book to get a sense of the different approaches people have to learning languages. Erard’s subject is people who are studying five or ten languages (or more) at the same time, so it’s at the extreme edge of things, but it’s an easy read and extremely interesting.
I haven’t dipped too much or exhaustively into the huge number of ‘how-to’ books on language study, but here are five that I read and found useful:
Amorey Gethin’s The Art and Science of Learning Languages: advocates a text-heavy approach with lots of reading to cement vocabulary in the context of ‘real language’.
Boris Shekhtman’s How to Improve Your Foreign Language Immediately: This is a very practical book with suggestions on improving spoken fluency and your ability to converse with other people. After you’ve done a few months of study, give this super-short book a read and try out his suggested exercises.
Barry Farber’s How to Learn Any Language: Nothing monumentally new here. Mostly common sense, but it’s worth reading if you haven’t thought about this stuff before.
A.G. Hawke’s The Quick and Dirty Guide to Learning Languages Fast: If you need to be able to function in a language very quickly, take a look at this book. Written by a former US Army Green Beret officer (?), it advocates a very practical approach that gets you speaking and mastering the basics in no time. It’s worth getting hold of a paper/hard copy of this book since there are boxes and things to fill in once you’ve decided what language you want to learn.
Gregg A. Miller’s The Pocket Linguist: Again, another common sense overview of the kinds of things you should be doing to study languages.
4. It takes a lot less than you think to get to a basic level of usefulness
Hawke’s Quick and Dirty Guide advocates diving head first into a language and there is a whole school of language learning that argues you need to be speaking from day one. Benny Lewis of the website FluentIn3Months has some comments on that here and he’s one of the more prominent advocates of this approach.
The trick — as with so many things — is to do a little bit every day rather than by hoping to cram things in to just a few mega-sessions lasting 5 hours each spaced out over a year. Want to learn Arabic, or Pashto? Do half an hour of deliberate practice every day for a year and I guarantee you’ll be able to have a conversation using what you learnt during that year.
5. Learning the Arabic alphabet is your biggest barrier to studying Arabic (or Pashto or Farsi/Dari) — and it isn’t actually difficult
This one’s just a bonus, since I’ve come across this particular hump in a lot of people wanting to study languages that use the Arabic alphabet or variants thereof. Lots of people think that Arabic is hard to learn because of the alphabet, and this seems to be a really common reason for people not bothering to start.
This is really unfortunate, because the alphabet is actually really easy. There are good online courses that teach you how to write and read Arabic letters, and once you’ve overcome that obstacle your confidence will already be so much higher that the rest that follows will seem easy.
Seriously, if your main reason for not starting to study Arabic (or Pashto, or Farsi/Dari) is the alphabet, you don’t have a leg to stand on.
Note that I also write about languages elsewhere online:
My tumblr where I jot down things from time to time relating to how my language studies are going.
My lang-8 account where I practice my writing in Arabic, Pashto, Farsi and Urdu.
My profile on how-to-learn-any-language.com, a really excellent site for discussing learning methods, finding self-study materials and in general discussing the study of languages.
This is the first in a series of posts I’ll be doing on this blog detailing some software or web services that I use. I’ll try to end each post with two examples of things I’ve used the software for recently.
Pinboard is an online bookmarking service. I save all the articles I read online there with a handy bookmarklet, and everything I read in Instapaper and via twitter also gets saved there. Even better, if you upgrade to a premium subscription, Pinboard’s servers will make an archive copy of the site so even if it is taken offline, you’ll still have a copy of the site. And before you say that other services do it better, read this.
It’s handy for sharing collated link collections with people and it’s useful just as an archive of everything you’ve been reading.
Two recent uses of Pinboard:
- I keep a rolling list of all the reviews and comments on my recent edited book, Poetry of the Taliban. You can see this here. These kinds of lists are great for sharing with other people.
- The other day I remembered I had read something online, but couldn’t quite remember where, so I searched within my Pinboard archive (including the text of all the websites I’d visited and read articles from in the past two weeks), finding the article within seconds.
I read 43 books this year. 44, if you count the book I’m about to finish. For some reason, 2012 doesn’t feel like it was a particularly great year in terms of the books and longform articles that were published.
Jeevan Deol and Zaheer Kazmi edited a fantastic collection of essays entitled Contextualising Jihadi Thought. Anyone interested in that kind of thing should read it.
For a fun read about the Taliban pre-2001, check out Mohammad Kabir Mohabbat and L.R. McInnis’ Delivering Osama. As you can tell from the title, it covers some of the Taliban’s internal policy over bin Laden before the September 11 attacks. This is something I have written about together with Felix Kuehn, but this manuscript wasn’t published when we wrote our book. If you’re the kind of person who enjoys downloading old archive documents relating to Afghanistan till the wee hours of the morning, give this book a read.
Finally, I wrote about this one two years ago, but I have to mention it again since I’ve been revisiting its arguments for a new research project I’m working on: Noah Feldman’s Fall and Rise of the Islamic State. It remains one of the most lucidly-written books I’ve read on the aspirational statebuilding of Islamists and what happens when they start thinking about constitutional law.
Drop me your book recommendations in the comments below and I’ll see if I can get through 52 books in 2013…
UPDATE: I’ve now finished book #44 and think I’ll get to #45 before the year is over…